We are introduced to Pulitzer-winning playwright Annie Baker’s new play, John, by Mertis. Playing the aging proprietor of an Gettysburg bed & breakfast, Marylouise Burke, whose sense of comedic timing is impeccable, draws back the red velvet stage curtains with slow arthritic movements. In a scene that faintly recalls the infamous Victoria Wood sketch in which Julie Walters plays a elderly waitress unable to balance soup, we watch Mertis light various table lamps, dust her vast collection of knick-knacks and make her way up the stairs to the rooms on the first floor, all in preparation for the guests who will soon arrive. The scene, which is several minutes long, is a masterclass in naturalistic acting, and ingenious writing – it takes place in near silence, and for a good portion of the time the stage is empty, save for dozens of dolls that stare out into the audience with unblinking glass eyes – we can only guess at Burke’s movements by the sound of her footsteps in the rafters. From these first moments, in a cast of immensely capable actors, Burke is the runaway star. She commands the stage with her soft spoken voice and deliberate, quiet grace.

Eventually we meet Eli (Tom Mothersdale) and Jenny (Anneika Rose), a New York couple that come to stay at Mertis’ B&B. Though at first they seemingly appear happy and in love, we soon see that their relationship is on the rocks, despite their best efforts. We hear snatches of arguments floating down the stairs on their first night, and then rapidly their disagreements spill out into the public. Just as the heating in their room will not switch on, the chill in their relationship refuses to thaw. Hamfisted attempts by the two to draw the other out lead to escalations: when at his behest Jenny tries to be candid about her disgust at Eli slurping cereal, he accuses her of anti-semitism: “Like, oh Jesus, the big loud hairy Jew is like smacking his lips again and chewing with his mouth open and it’s totally repulsive.” Nothing will convince him that that is not what she meant. At times it feels claustrophobic watching these desperate, intimate arguments on the cluttered stage because they sound so real. Bakers has such an uncanny talent for writing dialogue, her characters stop and start when they go to talk, bumble through what they say, the writing is so precise it sounds improvised: it is easy to wonder what these real-life people are doing up on stage.

Baker’s writing is clever in other ways: “have you ever felt watched?” Mertis asks Jenny over a glass of wine towards the end of the second act. Jenny looks out into the audience where hundreds of pairs of eyes intently look back. “No,” she says “I don’t think so.” After a pause, she revises her answer, admitting that she had always felt judged by a childhood doll who to her seemed furious at her. To Mertis’ friend, Genevieve, played by a fantastic June Watson, this seems entirely natural. “Of course she was angry!” she exclaims, “to be a piece of plastic… to be shaped into a human form and trapped! People manhandling you. And then put in a dress. Put in an itchy little dress!” This scene in which the three exceptional female leads sit around a table discussing their lives reveals John as quietly feminist – of course these women know what it is to be angry at being objectified, how could they not?

Baker’s frequent allusions to being watched echoes Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, in which Atwood writes that that everything a woman does, “including not catering to male fantasies, is a male fantasy: …pretending you have a life of your own… unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else”. Atwood’s words “you are a woman with a man inside watching a woman” are never truer than in the case of Genevieve, an elderly blind woman who for many years had felt her ex-husband had control of her mind and was dictating her every action. Baker’s writing finds a perfect partner in director James MacDonald, whose approach is considered and cinematic. Over the course of nearly three and a half hours, he allows Baker’s characters to evolve gradually, occupying the stage at the edges, or sometimes not at all, making the events that much closer, more real.

Baker’s meditations on loneliness, and our power to acutely and precisely hurt those we know the best are powerful. The only missteps she makes are in her conscious effort to be spooky: Christmas lights flicker ominously, there are references to quasi-sentient rooms; all of this is unnecessary, John is haunting enough without the addition of actual ghosts. This singular, brilliant play cements Baker’s position as one of the best, most interesting playwrights working today.

4.5 Stars

Where? Natioanl Theatre When? Until 3rd March How Much? £24 - £55